Friday, August 26, 2016

FAIR DAY IN AN ANCIENT TOWN, poetry that's *saturated* with yearning

(Mineral Point Poetry Series #3)
Brain Mill Press
$14.95 trade paper & eBook bundle, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s April now, complains Allendorf’s speaker, and still no desperate gift of unreturned yearning.

The poems of Fair Day in An Ancient Town subvert the glorious, Romantic pastoral into a voice easy to imagine as Walt Whitman’s darkly clever younger brother. The object of affection is fake-tanned and an idiot but still crashes a dozen lush masturbatory fantasies—or the speaker and his lover meet as shepherds only to eat M&Ms and abandon each other on bingo night. O, the way his mouth confounded me / and folded on my mouth there in the fold, slyly sings one of Allendorf’s shepherd’s songs, O, the glory of his hairy arms, / the way they lit my eyes a little then.

Layering complex form, rhyme, and craft over lush horniness and hard wit, Allendorf effortlessly upends romantic poetry and exposes it to the twenty-first century. This is a collection to make the reader laugh out loud and think deep—and then find a way to be alone under the covers.


My Review: Alone hell! This collection could honestly be subtitled, "Inducements to Cruise for Action"! "I'll paint the memory/of you on my closed coffin lid and lard/my arteries with your untamed beauty." That's some hot longing goin' on there.

Kiki Petrosino edits these collections of work by poets from the middle of America, but does not find middlin' poets. This signed copy, #18 of 100, is a lovely object to hold as well as a pleasure of a trove to read. I'll give you a whole poem as a sample of the aesthetic at work here:

Never so great the shiftlessness. The rest
of the night, I'll stare into the wall
and think a poem about alcohol.
I'll write about the luxury that's failed
me so far this month. It's April now,
and still no desperate gift of unreturned
yearning. Usually, I'm writing reams
of crushy ones each day. Lush, bitter birds
that soar into the window one by one.
I just can't muster it. They hurt me some,
the poems and their people, all the pearl
of torture. I confess, I am afraid;
It's hard to sleep without a tiny veil
of pain to puff with breath and call a sail.

You'll find this to your taste, or not; but the collection is well represented by this poem, so make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

MOONSTONE, who feels very much like he WAS there despite the novel's subtitle

MOONSTONE: The Boy Who Never Was
tr. Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$22.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The mind-bending miniature historical epic is Sjón's specialty, and Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is no exception. But it is also Sjón's most realistic, accessible, and heartfelt work yet. It is the story of a young man on the fringes of a society that is itself at the fringes of the world--at what seems like history's most tumultuous, perhaps ultimate moment.

Máni Steinn is queer in a society in which the idea of homosexuality is beyond the furthest extreme. His city, Reykjavik in 1918, is homogeneous and isolated and seems entirely defenseless against the Spanish flu, which has already torn through Europe, Asia, and North America and is now lapping up on Iceland's shores. And if the flu doesn't do it, there's always the threat that war will spread all the way north. And yet the outside world has also brought Icelanders cinema! And there's nothing like a dark, silent room with a film from Europe flickering on the screen to help you escape from the overwhelming threats--and adventures--of the night, to transport you, to make you feel like everything is going to be all right. For Máni Steinn, the question is whether, at Reykjavik's darkest hour, he should retreat all the way into this imaginary world, or if he should engage with the society that has so soundly rejected him.


My Review: The first two paragraphs:
The October evening is windless and cool. There is a distant throb of a motorcycle. The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound. Holding it still, he tries to work out the distance; to hear if the bike is coming closer or moving away; if it's being ridden over level or marshy ground, or up the stony slope on the town side of the hill.

A low groan escapes the man standing over the kneeling boy. With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock. He groans again, louder, in increasing frustration, thrusting his hips so his swollen member slides to and fro in the boy's mouth.
I don't have any idea what I was expecting from this story, but this surely was not it. I had heard tell of Sjón as I expect most serious readers will have done. I hadn't either noticed or encountered those who had mentioned the fact that he is perfectly comfortable discussing the meatiness of sex and the cultural hypocrisy that surrounds sexuality all over the world. I haven't heard of Iceland being particularly enlightened about queerness. Combine all these lacks and you get a surprised old man gaping at the first page of this internationally acclaimed novel, wondering (not for the first time) if those warbling from the treetops about how wonderful this book is have really read it.

Color me cynical, I guess.

Máni Steinn, Moonstone in English, has led a stressful and unhappy life. His loss of family and inability to fit in to his peer group are central to his sense of himself as Other, not one of the lads or lasses. He creates his own family of sorts by turning tricks for his cash and living his real life in the cinemas (two!) of Reykjavík. The boy lives with his great-aunt because no one else could or possibly would take him in. As she is well past her prime and unable to do a lot for him socially, Máni is left as free as any misfit could ever wish to be, enabling him to act freely and without fear of discovery as he memorizes the important things in a lad's life: the sound that each unique vehicle in the small country makes, the faces and trades and residences of his tricks, the existence of the Cool Kids' Set and their activities. This being 1918 Máni is about to learn something of the outside world in stark and cruel relief. The Spanish Flu is creeping up the shores of Iceland where it will alter his life forever:
The photographer hands the boy three krónur:
--I'm afraid you won't be as busy for a while, pal.

The boy shrugs and heads back out into the rain.

The photographer was one of his first gentlemen. It was from him that he acquired the photograph of Muggur. The picture shows the artist in a black suit, with bangs down to his eyes and a roguish smile on his lips. There is a cigarette in his hand, which he must have lowered the instant the shutter opened.

The movement of his arm is sketched in the air as if Muggur had made a brushstroke in time.
The moments of 1918 will be limned in Máni's mind's eye forever. As well as World War I reaching its spavined conclusion, 1918 saw Iceland freed from the long colonial rule of Denmark and one of its immense supply of volcanoes erupting near to Reykjavík. For Máni, all of this was merely background noise as his survival from the flu and his discovery in flagrante delicto with a Danish sailor on the day that Iceland's independence was formally announced leads his unsettled life into yet another configuration. His adoration for the film world and its probable effect on his abnormality is clearly analyzed by a famous doctor whose henchman Máni had been until the dalliance with the Danish sailor comes to light:
Anyone who has observed a child playing with a doll will know how intently the child examines it by touch as well as gaze. Fingers and eyes probe the physical form with the precision of a master surgeon who has been assigned the duty of dissecting a body to the bone. Every nook and cranny is inspected; nape of neck and ear, groin and instep are caressed.

In the same fashion, the cinema audience scrutinizes the light-puppets on the silver screen, and whether it is the curve of Asta Nielsen's back, Thede Bara's naked shoulders, Pina Menichelli's sensual eyelida, Clara Kimball Young's slim ankles, Musidora's Cupid's bow, Gunnar Tolnæs' strong fingernails, Douglas Fairbanks' firm thighs, or Max Linder's soft eyes, the body part in question and its position will become the focus of the viewer's existence and etch itself into his psyche, while the size of the image and the repeated close-ups of lips, teeth, and even tongues will exacerbate the effects until few have the strength to resist them.

Film is thus immoral by its very nature, transforming the actor into a fetish and fostering perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame. The difference lies in that the cinema audience's appointment is with the cold flicker of the flame rather than the searing fire itself.
(itals in original)
It amazes me the facility with which Sjón operates equally lyrically when describing the antiquated views of the doctor and the simple survival techniques of Máni. Never does one feel like a foil for the other. In this compact and beautiful novel, each character is accorded that respectful tacit acknowledgment of his or her uniqueness and validity.

Such a terrific feat in life, still less in art. This story is a joy to read; Sjón is a welcome addition to my pantheon of superb writers, and his translator Victoria Cribb earns my slack-jawed admiration for her sterling craftsmanship and fearless honesty in searching out the exact, precise word that conveys the very shade of meaning one can sense was there in the original; and last but far from least, Farrar, Straus and Giroux gets a prolonged standing ovation for making this joyous discovery possible for the US audience.

Thank you all. And happy birthday, young Sjón, on the 27th!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

CARE GIVER, an inside glimpse of the steady march towards nothing that is dementia


Livingston Press
$8.50 HALF PRICE SALE trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Care Giver leads us through a kaleidoscope of events as a failing old man pens unmailed letters to his lost love from a nursing home bed. A caring paperboy aids the man for a passage to his promised land, and becomes the unexpected inheritor of the man’s hallowed highlands. As the boy seeks to build his own life on those gifted lands, he too is haunted by visions of a lost soul, and finally makes ready for his own deliverance in the high peaks.

This strange story unfolds as we consider the man’s letters, the boy’s writings, and the photos and clippings all found among the boy’s belongings. If you’ve ever been troubled by someone’s incurable suffering, then read Care Giver. It is at once a testament to forbidden mercies and to the power of enduring faith. For me, it rings of the utter truth.

My Review: In the emerging literary genre of dementia fiction, this short novel stands out for its brutal, unsparing honesty of presentation. In alternating sections, too short to be chapters, Bob Brown's stream-of-consciousness narration of his deteriorating grasp on his own mind juxtaposes with the short, sibylline utterances of John Fulton, a kind-hearted and shy young paperboy who becomes the living anchor of Bob's world.

Bob writes letters, from his addled 81-year-old brain, to his long-lost love Margo Jones. The more letters he writes to her, the more we are treated to a ringside seat in the spectacle of a mind's disappearance. The mixture of times present and past is complete and the distinction, for Bob, is gone; for us, the strands of meaning are tightly twined and are mutually supportive narratives, often seeming to merge like hairs in the plaits of a braid: Tightly spaced, closely woven, touching all down their lengths, forming one constructed object and still made up of discrete parts. The book emphasizes this joined-but-separate quality of narrative with the two men's voices alternating and with the liberal use of photos throughout the book.

John, the boy who brings Bob his paper, is a shy kid of seventeen when he meets the old man. He's like all young people in that all things come back to himself in reference. He's a good man, though, because he spares moments of his life to spend with the slowly disappearing Bob. He listens. He asks questions, engages with the person before him. John straightens pillows and leaves the elder to sleep when he's been drugged and never flags in offering his precious gift of attention.

The beauty of writing this book from the PoV of the dying man and his care giver, his giver of caring beyond the physical, is wondrous. The end of the story is already known, the end is the ending...and the ending is a lovely thing. Only Bob speaks...we see the photos he cherishes enough to will them to his young best friend...we hear his letters, last ones ever, to his Margo....

This book is a lonely and frightened and confused old man's orison to the lost god of love.

FOR YOU, MADAM LENIN is on sale! A novel of the domestic life of a revolutionary


Livingston Press
$10.00 SALE PRICE trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin's comrade/wife, was an only child. Where she went, her mother went also. In Siberia and Europe, Lenin and the two Krupskayas shared close quarters: two- and three-room apartments.

Lenin obliged to live with an in-house, sharp-tongued critic, Nadya Krupskaya and Lenin trying to run a revolution while living with mom/mother-in-law, the daily rituals and domestic lives of subversives--fictionally promising territory.

For You, Madam Lenin covers pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the Soviet experiment post-Lenin. Trotsky with his abundant hair, Stalin with his webbed feet, Lenin's lovely mistress Inessa Armand, and half-blind Fanny Kaplan, Lenin's would-be assassin, are all present and accounted for.

But the novel belongs to the two Krupskayas. In this version of events, the male triumvirate Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin doesn't outshine Russia's long line of tough, resilient, radical female luminaries.


My Review: I like historical novels, I'm interested in Russian history, and I'm completely in tune with the idea of a husband being the butt of womanly's such a common trope, after all. Mothers-in-law don't come much more beady-eyed and observant than Krupskaya Senior.

I don't know that I'd ever so much as given a second's thought to Lenin's domestic arrangements. If anything, I assumed pretty young cadres were at his beck and call. I can't say from my own original research how much of this novel was fictionalized, but I'd certainly say the *feeling* is convincing.

The narrative told from Matushka Krupskaya's point of view is, in fact, charming in its illusionlessness about Lenin's failings as a husband and as a leader. His susceptibility to a pretty Parisian piece, Inessa, surprises his mother-in-law not at all. She admits she thinks Inessa is a lovely, fun girl. But she remains her daughter's mother, so much so that she is Nadezhda's emotional ballast through the inevitable trials of being a famous man's wife. (This part I know to be fictional, as Krupskaya Senior died before the October Revolution.) What impact that has on the power couple, well, three is a crowd didn't become a cliché for no reason.

The other narrative voices, all anonymous omniscient and convenient, are there for the author to offer commentary on the events unfolding before the Krupskayas. It's handy from a plotting point of view, and the "interrogator" of history is at times amusing, but it feels a bot contrived. Krupskaya Senior is telling the story to some unnamed someone, us the readers; the omniscient narrator is too; then the interrogations by History of, for example, Marx's daughters is thrown in, and none of the scenes is terribly long...well, it's choppy out here on this Russian lake.

What sold me on the novel, concerns aside, is the delicate and ever-so-charming arabesque of a life Meads makes for the three women at the heart of things: Mother and confessor, critic and protector, sad survivor and acerbic battler; passionate advocate and wife, lover and beloved, widow and guardian of the flame; and soft, worshipful, accepting refuge for an aging man's sad and defeated needy heart. None of the three can be in any orbit except Lenin's, and in all their actions, they choose this course. They choose to be Lenin's womenfolk. Not because That's What Women Do. Because, first to last, each is committed to the vision of himself that Lenin shows her.

Tart, critical, practical, obsessive, and passionate. Not one of these women is ever less than herself in these pages. That's a lot to say for a trio of wildly different fictionalized people. I'm glad I read it.

THE BRICK MURDER: A Tragedy, and Other Stories earns my happy respect for quality writing that's still fun

THE BRICK MURDER: A Tragedy, and Other Stories

Livingston Press
$9.50 SALE PRICE trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: THE BRICK MURDER: A Tragedy, and Other Stories is a funnily tragic collection of stories that always borders on wondrously correct incorrectness. A manic and angered sub-sub-librarian learns about cultural differences from a manic and angered patron. A junior faculty member gets paid to befriend a senior star philandering poet. Three kids and a rabbi discover the awful truth that God really is a process God. A token black man Bob the Negro accomplishes revenge in his work place at a price. And, a brick plays a momentous part in a tragedy. This collection comes one short of a dozen, but nothing short in its style and reach.

My Review: Sixth winner of the Ruby Pickens Tartt Award for First Fiction Collection Kurt Jose Ayau brings an outsider's eye (meaning he doesn't squint through the same Galileo-era telescope) to short fiction. He doesn't write plotless blobs of pretty sentences, like the Writerly Reviews publish, he writes STORIES, with beginnings, middles, and endings. Sometimes they aren't in the usual places, but they're there. Livingston Press grants this prize annually to an author who has never had a collection of short fiction published, naming it after a WPA Writers' Project worker who went all over Depression-era Alabama collecting the oral histories of former slaves. Tartt's work never appeared under her own name until after she died. The publisher honors her unsung service to literature by awarding the prize of publication to a previously unheard or ill-attended-to voice. Ayau's collection is eleven pieces strong, and there are far more hits than the few near-misses in these pages. The title story takes us to the last moments on Earth of a pompous, arrogant blowhard ex-military teacher. He's typical of most of the full professors I've ever known, completely oblivious to anything but him/herself and his/er hobbyhorse; well, this time, it costs the old fuffertut dearly. Like, everything. I took great Schadenfreude in this revenge tale. As Ayau is a professor at a military school, I wonder if it's not simply wish fulfillment....

"Official Friend", "Calling It Off", "Sand Castle", and "Culture Clash" all ring their various changes on the theme of identity and its roots; it's evergreen territory, this, and Ayau rakes through the fallen treasures to very good effect.

"At A Loss for Words", "Outsourcing", and "By the Numbers" are tales of betrayal of trust, the scales-falling-from-their-eyes moments that are physically and psychically painful; in at least two cases lethal....

"Murray and the Holy Ghost" and "Spawning" are told from the eyes of children, and are, to my mind at least, the least successful in the collection. Both revolve around those last moments of innocence before the quotidian world of adulthood crunches the child's illusions about himself, his universe, and his most treasured fantasies. Ayau's child voices are well presented. I just don't like that story's effect, no matter how well it's told, and I am also a little tired of kids carrying stories in fiction. Too many iterations of that here lately, and frankly I'm over it.

And then there's "Bob the Negro." What a story that is. I hope it's anthologized in every future work that pretends to deal with race in America. Hugely successful sales maven Bob takes a job in a regionally successful, all-white company in Podunk, New Enland. He energizes the sales single-handedly. He makes friends of one and all. He's on top of the world! So he thinks. Disturbing hints of a different reality make it through his oblivious, overachieving shell; he lays traps to discover exactly what his suspicions tell him could be going on; and then, when his worst fears are exceeded, he pulls a major bonehead maneuver and loses everything...except success, which he can't keep away with a barge-pole. This story is the chef d'ouevre and it alone is worth the $19 the book costs. Buy the book, read the story, and come tell me about it if you disagree...but I suspect you won't. It's that good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ON THE TWELFTH NIGHT, a blazingly creative finish to Monstrous Little Voices

(Monstrous Little Voices #5)
Abaddon Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Anne Hathaway – contented wife of a glovemaker and aletaster, proud mother of three – has her life turned upside down when strangers, oddly familiar, come to her door and whisk her husband away. What is their business, this terrible danger they say we all face? What is the lattice, and what part must her Will play to save it?

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Imagine yourself in Jonathan Barnes's shoes: you're invited to participate in making an anthology of prose extensions and reimaginings of playwright William Shakespeare's retronymed Tuscan Wars fantasy universe. The editors are hotshots. The publishing house is terminally cool. This sugar/adrenaline bolus would lead any writer to need immediate doses of Ritalin and insulin. Then comes the dose of ricin, the silver hammer this collective Maxwell brings down on your head:

You're wrapping the main narrative thrust that four gifted and talented other authors shaped and directed into a satisfying conclusion, and you're doing it as a response to Twelfth Night.

Holy shitsnacks. *I* can feel writer's block coming on out of sheer terror.

In my review of Adrian Tchaikovsky's EVEN IN THE CANNON'S MOUTH, I called attention to Helena's description of a "place between the pages of the world's book," as a central factor in making all five of these novellas make sense (something modern audiences insist on, silly buggers) as a universe. Clearly I don't know if that conceit is original to Mr. T or if it was part and parcel of the pitch to the authors. I therefore claim no special knowledge of the origins of "the lattice" either. The two conceits seem to me to be different points of view on the same underlying reality. Whoever thought this up, however it was disseminated to the writers, it is a piece of bloody brilliance that knits up many raveled places in Shakespeare's own fictional playhouse-cum-universe. It is, in fact, a small bell-ringer for me as part of the explanation of Shakespeare's troubling and sudden blooming into a major talent from humble, nay untermensch dimensions lowly, beginnings.

And Jonathan Barnes plays it for all it is worth by describing it from the standpoint of the most innocent imaginable bystander: abandoned wife Anne Shakespeare. Oh my, how bold and perceptive a narrative choice. Anne is always, in every imaginable way, the unwinner of every iteration of Shakespeare's fame. Read Robert Nye's take on her, MRS. SHAKESPEARE: The Complete Works. Her fictional memoir is as affecting in its portrayal of a loud, vibrant, lively fun-loving woman as Barnes's is in portraying Anne as a passionate woman in love with a restless man. Both takes, along with so many others written over the course of centuries, require Anne to sacrifice herself to Will's outsized persona.

Only in this novella, an entire playwright's canon of pathos is loaded onto Mrs. Shakespeare's broad shoulders:
Afterwards, they went inside and they sat by the fire and they talked of the life that was left to them, and for a little while, they thought not of the past at all, but only of the future.

EVEN IN THE CANNON'S MOUTH, fourth novella in Monstrous Little Voices and a follow-on tale to Shakespeare's As You Like It

(Monstrous Little Voices #4)
Abaddon Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Illyria’s Duke Orsino has raised new, powerful allies, and in a last-ditch attempt to win the war, Don Pedro and his brother John, wise old Jacques and the physician Helena sail to Milan to appeal in person for the wizard Prospero’s aid. But unseasonal storms drive them onto the Illyrian shore, and into the hands of their enemies...

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to being my tippy-top very-best favorite in the collection! It is not because of any lack or failing that Tchaikovsky's entry comes in at 0.999999999999 of 1 in my affections, it is the happenstance of placement. This fourth of five novellas takes on As You Like It, a dear favorite play of mine; but the tale does so very near the close of the collection's business, and so is constrained to bring major thematic strands together while working within the conceit established for the whole endeavor.

A lesser writer would be sunk by meeting these rigorous demands. Tchaikovsky makes doing so look effortless and makes his audience chortle, snicker, giggle, and all while mopping away strange bits of moisture from the corner of the eye. No idea where those came from. But here's the rub for me: I sense that there was a lot, nay a plethora, of material that Tchaikovsky whipped in to the crème Chantilly that is Even in the Cannon's Mouth and was compelled to jettison it to serve his multiple masters.

I realize I could be completely wrong, Tchaikovsky isn't an intimate of mine and doesn't confide his secrets to me; but read this:
"You are most kind," Viola spoke over him. "And pray, will you not join us, who has such respect for learning?"
They passed some moments exchanging compliments, then sent the noble Spaniard off for more mugs, consigning him to the seven-deep scrum about the tapster. Viola let Feste ramble, watching the two foreigners try to follow his baffling loops of logic. At last she said, "Aye, we two are belike the foremost men of learning in all Illyria, and yet you see how fortune treats us! I myself have converse with angels and airy spirits most nights, and have studied with no lesser man than Doctor Dee, while Father Topaz has honed his craft in the invisible college of Verrucoporcus and conjured the stone philosophical. It has been many a cold week since last a stranger showed kindness to two poor scholars such as we."
This grace note off the mash-up within pastiche inside hommage shows the attentive reader just how much pruning must have gone into keeping this novella a novella and not a stonking tome. (Saint Quinculencus? HA!) A mind this well furnished and a spirit this inclined to playfulness must be severely disciplined to keep things concise.

The form Tchaikovsky uses to frame his tale is also an aid in this task. Acts and scenes and stage directions function as a corset does in assisting the costume to cover more fleshed-out bones than it could otherwise. They're in the spirit of the Bard, they're familiar to the audience likely to pick up the book, and they're practical. It isn't a small feat to understand all that and use it so seamlessly for all those purposes that the typical reader passes them all by unthinking.

These passages reveal the immense and demanding task behind the seemingly effortless storytelling going on in the foreground:
"We are between the pages of the world's book. Each scene and moment of our lives is pieced together in this space before it's served to us. We are where none of us was meant to be."
May I just say YES to this? And:
Parolles was still at his fictional Battle of Lepanto. Already he had travelled on a cannonball and hauled himself out of the water by his own hair. Each listener had tried to challenge the lie--Orsino, Don John, and Sir Toby among them--and each challenge he slew, and then piled up the bodies to reach even greater heights of the absurd. Where his words might have taken him, when the newcomers broke in, was past all guessing. Some men, when given rope, refuse to hang themselves but weave a ladder to the moon.
Aside from the humor and the dignity of the passage on its surface, there is in concert with the passage above a deep structural function to those ideas expressed. This becomes more obvious when the book has been consumed whole. But there is something, some gravitic effect like dark matter, that pulls the reader towards these moments and carves their importance on the awareness paid into any work of fiction.

Yet all without any sense of didactic purpose or clanking of barely invisible plot machinery. That, my friends, is the best quality of writing going today.